Book Review: Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film and Culture
· Dean Batali
· Scott Derickson
· Ron Austin
· Thom Parham
· et al
by R.J. Carter
Published: October 21, 2005
I'm a reviewer of movies and television. An ironic (or perhaps not so) career for me to fall into, having been raised in a religion that was very strict about such things. Strict, as in declaring all theaters houses of sin and all television as the work of the devil. The sole justification for this was a Bible verse: "Set no evil thing before thine eye," a verse that doesn't show up on any Bible search engine I run (although googling the phrase will take a browser immediately to the organization in question.)
It was a doctrine that was adhered to... mostly. By the time I was in the seventh grade, I had seen a smattering of movies: Pete's Dragon, Darby O'Gill, and The Apple Dumpling Gang. And by the grace of my father I was taken to see Star Wars and Superman -- because for sure my life would have been over if I hadn't seen them, immersed as I was in comics and science fiction (books, as you may imagine, made up the bulk of my entertainment world.)
But it wasn't until I began making my own decisions about entertainment that I began seeing movies, and lots of them. And yes, like many kids who grew up under such restraints, the initial exercisings of that freedom were done without practiced wisdom, as I reached for the extremes with all the kinetic energy of a rubber band that had been stretched to its breaking point before that final release.
Even today, however, in religions that aren't nearly as legalistic, there are those who see -- and clearly so -- problems with many of the messages in the output of the Hollywood industry. I've heard it said that if God didn't punish Hollywood for their sins, He would have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.
But in Hollywood -- and, more specifically, in the Hollywood industry -- there are Christians. Not the ones who produce the next Left Behind or Veggie Tales movies, but producing mainstream, broad-appeal movies with PG-13 and even R ratings affixed to them.
A handful of them have come together to present their opinions on the mergers (and clashes) of Faith and Filmmaking. Their essays have been collected in this book and not all of them agree with each other. (What? Christians disagreeing with each other? Say it ain't so!) Nor do they all think that what the mass audience needs is another Passion of the Christ or Joshua.
Take, for instance, this opinion offered by Behind the Screen co-editor, Barbara Nicolosi:
This opinion seems to be in almost direct oppostion to Charles B. Slocum's plan, put forth in his essay, "The $10 Billion Solution," in which he lays out a financial plan for actually creating a Christian omni-media company that could thrive in the marketplace and survive the hits of having a 90% clunker rate -- just like all the mainstream organizations have. (Let's face it -- all those Disney subsidiaries do not produce 100% #1 box office successes.)
The world does not need a "Christian cinema" so much as it needs Christians in cinema.
We do not need our churches to set up production companies and make movies. We need the church to approach Hollywood as a missionary territory, to preach and teach and minister. We need a new generation of artist-apostles to come to the industry with humility and pastoral love.
-- Barbara Nicolosi, "Toward A Christian Cinema"
Nor do all these Christians believe that the movies should be "cleaned up." Ron Austin, whose production credits include the television versions of Mission: Impossible and Charlie's Angels, describes it thusly:
A point, you may concede, but Mr. Austin's work has hardly ever come close to offending delicate Christian sensibilities (except, perhaps, for that scene with a scantily clad Cheryl Ladd.) Scott Derickson, however, who's recent movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has, perhaps, firmer ground to stand on when making a case for mature ratings in Christian cinema, in this excerpt from his essay, a pastiche on A Pilgrim's Progress:
Christians have tended to be more comfortable with Platonic dramas. You often hear religious commentators criticize what seem to them to be excesses of the Aristotelian tendency: "Why do you want us to see such ugly things?" they ask. Or, "Why do you have to use such bad language?" They are asking, not unreasonably, for a story that presents a model of good behavior, particularly for a young audience. What they don't understand is that Aristotelian drama needs to confront us with the ugly and unpleasant if it is to take us to those dark places requiring purgation.
--- Ron Austin, "The Hollywood Divide"
Many Christians are, no doubt, more aware of the "evil" movies out there than they are of those that have a divine message at their core. Why they spend more time looking for the devil than they do looking for the Lord is something only they can answer. However, it does seem that Christians are most moved by something offensive than by something beautiful -- and where are they moved to most? To the boycott.
Nevertheless, what began to disillusion me about the Monastery of Harmless Entertainment was that they advocated the rather ludicrous idea that G- and PG-rated material is inherently superior in moral quality to PG-13- or R-rated material. They thoroughly believed that family-friendly material is intrinsically of higher moral value than R-rated material that explores darker truth. I found this to be totally incongruent with the texts of Scripture. The story of Noah and the ark -- a story that you can tell in any child's Sunday school class -- is not of higher moral value than, say, the story of David -- a man so consumed with lust that he commits murder and steals his victim's wife. Even more "R-rated" is the story in which David, who, wanting another woman, Saul's daughter, slaughters two hundred Philistines, cuts off his victims' foreskins, then puts them on a plate and brings them to King Saul. That's not a family-friendly story. I doubt that you'll ever see a Sunday school flannelgraph of bloody foreskins. Nonetheless, that was a story God saw fit to include in the canon of Scripture, and I certainly don't believe that it is of lesser moral value than the story of Noah and the ark.
-- Scott Derickson, "A Filmmaker's Progress"
But boycotts, it seems, have little effect (unless it's to get Mighty Mouse off of television.) The Souther Baptists began a boycott against all things Disney to protest the appearance of gays and lesbians on television. Several months after it began, one contributor says his boss hadn't even heard of the boycott. Another says that if you're boycotting a television show, you're no longer part of the demographic the producers are trying to aim for, and thus you're no longer cared about. And, what's more, boycotts can have exactly the opposite effect on Hollywood -- an aversion to producing anything with a Christian theme at all:
Are you getting the impression that Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture might not be the "Rah rah, unite against the evil empire!" cheer that you may have expected? It's more. It actually lays much of the fault for the great divide between Hollywood and the church at the feet of Christians, either for lacking the understanding of how the media works or for missing opportunities to draw Hollywood closer when they do something right.
Executives tend to be wary of movies and TV shows with overtly spiritual themes, and not for reasons you might expect. About ten years ago, I worked as a story analyst for Hollywood Pictures, a division of Disney. I was assigned to read a script that posed the question: what if Jesus returned to Earth in the body of a teenage girl in Santa Barbara? I gave it a minor rave. I loved its sense of humor and its audacious premise, which I thought could stir some healthy controversy and help promote the film. And I emphasized that the material wasn't trying to proselytize. (As I recall, the writer was Jewish.) What I didn't tell the studio was that I was personally thrilled that a movie based on the screenplay might open some hearts to Christ's message and encourage much-needed public discourse about religion.
The executives who read my report panicked. It had only been a few years since the release of The Last Temptation of Christ, and the furor that the movie had enflamed in the Christian community was still fresh in their minds. They immediately rejected the project and gave me a none-too-subtle warning to express less affection for spiritually themed projects. To the best of my knowledge, the screenplay has never been produced.
Because of the way Christians have reacted to projects like The Last Temptation of Christ, executives see spiritual material as a risk. And even with the box office triumph of The Passion of the Christ and the critical success of Joan of Arcadia, that's a risk many are unwilling to take.
-- Donovan Jacobs, "A View from the Top"
Parham also lays out an interesting history of film, comparing some of the better Christian-themed films -- mostly made by non-Christians. Compared against the work of blatantly Christian-themed films created by and for Christians, it's easy to see which ones could be called art and which ones could be viewed as propaganda. Among the better-grossing movies, Parham includes Jonah, Bruce Almighty, and of course, The Passion of the Christ -- wherein Craig Detwiler says Christians blew it yet again:
"If you want to send a message, try Western Union," said Frank Capra, a Christian who made hugely popular mainstream films. Film excels at metaphor -- forging a connection between dissimilar objects or themes. It doesn't fare as well with text messaging. Show, don't tell, is the rule of cinema. Christians, however, can't seem to resist the prospect of using film as a high-tech flannel board. The result is more akin to propaganda than art, and propaganda has a nasty habit of hardening hearts.
-- Thom Parham, "Why Do Heathens Make the Best Christian Films?"
Historically, Christians had always been at the forefront of new forms of artistic expression: scultpure, painting, writing -- all became means for spreading the gospel in new ways to new audiences. Alas, says Leo Partible, such is not the case today:
The Passion was a brilliant movie, but for the Christian community, it was a missed opportunity. As followers of Christ, we should have used the controversy as a chance to better understand the Hollywood community and to build bridges with them. Instead, we used it as another tool in the culture war.
--- Craig Detweiler, "Opportunity Lost"
Yes, Virginia, there are Christians in Hollywood, and they're working in the places you'd least likely expect them. My favorite essay in the whole book was "What Would Jesus Write?" by Sheryl Anderson. Sheryl is a screenwriter for Charmed, a television series involving three sisters who are witches. Her favorite television show is Oz, which is full of violence and other not-niceties. Is she a Christian? Absolutely -- and her testimony is an eye opener, not just to her life but to the blindness that we as Christians have toward the redemptive themes of superficially non-Christian media.
No longer leaders of artistic innovation, Christians today are on the fringes of the culture. Evangelicism has stubbornly maintained an emphasis on the verbal and literal, while the rest of society has become increasingly dependent on the visual and metaphorical.
It's no wonder Christians have trouble with comic books and comic-book movies -- fantastic, highly metaphorical stories told through visual media. Christians fear that the god-like heroes of these stories are somehow in competition with the God of Scripture. Superpowered beings and supernatural phenomena not clearly stated as originating in the biblical God are seen as false idols and witchcraft.
But Christians have completely missed the metaphorical nature of these stories. In recent history we have limited God's communicative powers and expression to the literal word in our reading of Scripture. We need to realize that the literal word is perhaps the beginning but hardly the full extent of God's communication. The Bible goes beyond simple didacticism, presenting the truth through literary devices such as symbols, metaphors, and allegories. In the Gospels, Christ tells parables and uses hyperbole. In much the same way, good comic book stories use hyperrealism to communicate a universal truth. They present exaggerated representations of human experience that can affirm, teach, and inspire.
-- Leo Partible, "The Divine Image"
There are Christians in Hollywood. But they are, admittedly, still few. Hollywood is still seen as a place where few Christians want to go, following the belief that they are to separate themselves from such obviously worldly folks. It's Babylon, after all, right? And yet...
Karen and Jim Covell put it more bluntly. Christians are to be in the world, even if not of it, and we don't pick and choose where God wants us to go. Most Christians would rather pick up and evangelize the deepest darkest regions of the third world before making a foray into the affluence and excess of La La Land.
Is it really so strange that Christians would be a part of the Hollywood community? Even if Hollywood is the new Babylon, remember that God asked some of his people to take part in the daily life of old Babylon:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. -- Jeremiah 29:5-7
I may not have had plastic surgery, several marriages, or a wing named for me at the Betty Ford Clinic, but I have been a part of this business for almost twenty years. I've read over a thousand movie and TV scripts, looking for talented new writers, and I have almost as many shares of worthless AOL/Time-Warner stock options to show for it.
-- Jack Gilbert, "We're Just Like You ... Really!"
Hollywood has Christians. And Hollywood needs Christians. Not sign-wavers, not doom prophets, not protesting organizations, and not condescending brimstone tossers who loudly declares "Jesus loves you, you no good heathens." It needs Christians, the true followers of Christ who follow not dogma or doctrine, but live in practice the Word: Love one another.
Perhaps it's time we see Hollywood less like Sodom and more like Nineveh.
-- Karen and Jim Covell, "The World's Most Influential Mission Field"
Behind the Screen is one of those books that can't really be fully covered in a review -- and God knows, I've tried. There's too much meat in here -- no, too many full course meals entirely. It's a two-month Bible study, a textbook, and a soul-baring of those at Act One, a Hollywood "support group" for Christians, who participated in the production of this book.
We need Christians in Hollywood, in fact, simply to show the people here what love looks like. The nonbelievers in town don't want to hear dogma, they don't want to hear how rotten you think their lifestyle is -- but they do want to be loved.
When nonbelievers looked at the early church, they said, "Behold, how they love one another." We sing, "They'll know we are Christians by our love."
If you can look at Hollywood types and love them wholeheartedly and unashamedly, then please do come to Hollywood!
-- Janet Scott Batchler, "So You Wanna Come to Hollywood"